Occupational Therapy is a health profession focused on maximizing an individual’s ability to function in his/her daily life. An Occupational Therapist addresses difficulties arising from cognitive impairment, physical injury, psychosocial dysfunction, developmental or learning disabilities. Many people associate the word occupation with “work”. Therefore, it is usually surprising to hear that Occupational Therapists often treat children. A child’s “work” is comprised of play, self-care skills, learning, school performance and social interactions. Most of these skills fall within the following areas:
- Fine motor skills (ex: stringing beads, grasp on a crayon/eating utensils, manipulation of clothing fasteners)
- Visual motor skills (ex: tracing lines, completing puzzles, imitating shapes via drawing, copying block designs)
- Sensory processing skills
- Self help skills (grooming and dressing)
- Handwriting (grapho-motor skills)
- Environmental adaptations (organizing and adapting home/classroom to meet each child’s specific needs)
- Play and socialization
- Neuromuscular development (muscle strength and endurance)
As therapists, we tap into a child’s interests to provide challenging therapeutic activities aimed at improving areas of weakness. We specialize in creating opportunities for children to master developmental tasks and achieve independence in home, school and within their communities. Therapy sessions look like “play”, which is exactly what the children who are participating think they are doing. Occupational Therapists are trained extensively in psychology, human physiology and development. Therapists often continue training beyond college to become certified in specific areas of treatment including, but not limited to, Sensory Integration (SIPT certified), Handwriting and Listening Therapy.
Sensory integration is the automatic process in which our brain registers sensory information from our five senses, as well as our internal senses of body position and movement. The brain reacts to this information with an appropriate adaptive response. For example, when we go outside on a sunny day, we either squint or put on sunglasses. The stimulus in this example is the sun and our eyes are the “sense” which detects the stimulus. Our brain processes this information by organizing and planning a response. This is the way typical sensory integration operates.
Most of the time, we do not think about our responses to various stimuli because our brains produce quick responses. Think about your commute to work. For those of us who take the subway in the morning, our bodies already have an “internal map” of where to go once underground; therefore it’s familiar and automatic.
Think about a trip to an amusement park. Typically, we know the amount and intensity of movement our bodies can handle before we may get motion sickness. Our brain registers this information and tells our body that we have had enough movement from roller coasters or that we can and want to go on more rides.
Imagine you are sitting in a boring lecture. Some of us can coast through this without a problem. Others need stimulation to keep our attention on task and will use compensatory strategies such as chewing gum, drinking water or biting a pen to help us do so.
A child with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) has sensory systems that are not functioning optimally. These children do not have the ability to make the types of connections such as the ones discussed above. They have difficulty interpreting one or more of their senses. The senses we are referring to include our basic five senses; vision, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. There are two more senses that may be unfamiliar to you. These senses include our vestibular sense (our sense of gravity and movement which is stimulated by change in head position) and our proprioceptive sense (tells us where our body position is in space). The vestibular and proprioceptive senses coupled with the tactile sense (sense of touch) are often referred to as the power systems, as these three systems are the most essential in early development.
Does my child need Sensory Integration Therapy?
Here are some signs of Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD):
- Afraid of movement or constantly moving too much
- Overly sensitive or under-reactive to touch, smells, tastes, textures, temperatures in food, sights or sounds
- Easily distracted
- Poor eye contact
- An activity level that is too high or too low
- Impulsive; lacking in self control, poor safety awareness
- Inability to unwind or self calm
- Social and/or emotional problems, frequent tantrums
- Physical clumsiness, poor balance
- Difficulty making transitions from one situation to another
- Delays in speech and language development
- Delays in motor skills and difficulty planning new movements
Visual perception is the process in which our brains take in and interpret visual information from the environment. Visual perception consists of seven components:
- Visual Discrimination is the ability to look at objects and pictures and know if they are alike and different. This skill is important when matching, categorizing and reading.
- Visual Memory is the ability to remember something that has been seen. This skill is important in comprehension.
- Visual Spatial Relations refers to the ability to be able to understand one’s position to other people and objects within the environment while orienting to one’s own body in space.
- Form Constancy is the ability to recognize objects regardless of their size, color or orientation. For example, a child able to recognize the correct puzzle piece even if it is upside down and backwards.
- Visual Sequential Memory is the ability to remember objects or forms in the correct order, such as when spelling and remembering patterns.
- Visual Figure-Ground is the ability to locate objects or figures without getting distracted by a busy background. This is important when looking for a pencil in a full backpack or finding your spot on the blackboard or page in a book.
- Visual Closure refers to the ability to visualize a whole object when presented with incomplete information or part of a picture. For example, perceiving a picture of a dog, when it’s partially covered by a tree.
Activities requiring visual perceptual skills include:
- Sorting games
- Memory games
- Building with blocks from a model or a picture
- Finding objects in a busy background; eg: Where’s Waldo books
- Picture sequencing
- What’s missing exercise worksheets
- Matching games such as dominoes
- Tic tac toe
Fine motor skills involve dexterity of the small muscles in the hands and fingers for concise and coordinated movements. Occupational therapists (OTS) help children develop and strengthen their fine motor skills. OTs are trained in selecting the right challenge fine motor activities based on a child’s specific needs.
Examples of tasks requiring fine motor skills include:
- Building with small blocks
- Turning a key inside a lock
- Fastening buttons and snaps
- Screwing/unscrewing a nut and bolt
- Drawing, painting, coloring
- Arts and crafts activities
- Rolling playdoh into small balls
- Picking up objects using small tweezers
Visual motor skills involve the hands and the eyes simultaneously working together to perform a task. An occupational therapist can help develop a child’s visual motor skills by using appropriately challenging eye/hand coordination activities.
Examples of activities requiring visual motor skills (eye/hand coordination) include:
- Forming shapes and letters
- Cutting out lines and shapes
- Throwing a bean bag/ball at a target
Self-care skills, also known as self-help skills are the daily tasks in a child’s life (eg: eating, dressing, grooming).
Self-care skills include:
Parents and caregivers often help their children with self-care skills; however, it is important to encourage children to become as independent as possible within these areas. Self-care tasks and experiences give children the foundation for many school related skills including organization, planning, sequencing and independence.